Ceylanpinar (Turkey): Turkey rebuffed Wednesday international pressure to curb its military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not meet with Mike Pence, as the White House had planned for Thursday, and rejected any negotiations with Kurdish militants.
The only way to solve Syria’s problems, Erdogan told parliament, was for the Kurdish forces to ‘lay down their arms… destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated’.
Battles raged Wednesday in the key Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, with Kurdish fighters trying to hold off the onslaught by Turkish-backed forces, now in its second week.
The fighting has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers, with Trump dispatching Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies. But Erdogan told Sky News: “I will not meet with them. I will speak when Trump comes.”
Moscow has stepped into the void left by Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.
Russian TV showed its forces alongside Syrian troops taking up positions in and around the key town of Manbij following the US pull-back.
The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.
Trump – facing mounting criticism in Washington over his decision to pull 1,000 troops out of the conflict zone, as well as an unrelated impeachment inquiry – has hit back at Erdogan, slapping sanctions on three cabinet officials and raising tariffs on Turkish steel.
Pence’s office had earlier released a statement that he would meet Erdogan, Thursday and ‘voice the United States’ commitment to reach an immediate ceasefire and the conditions for a ‘negotiated settlement’. Pence reiterated that Trump will pursue ‘punishing economic sanctions’ until a resolution is reached.
The operation has widespread support in Turkey, where decades of bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants has killed tens of thousands of people. But Western powers are spooked that it will endanger the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group, which was led on the ground by Kurdish forces. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.